A Limited Philosophy

Super-studly PBS pundit David Brooks recently wrote in his New York Times column about the “Philosophy of Data”. He does that thing he always does – weighing the pro’s and cons and doing everything in his power to be reasonable. I love him for that. I love his skepticism of accepting a worldview based entirely out of data and statistics. He expresses his worry that we ” tend to get carried away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable”, and then immediately begins to explain why even with all its faults, data-driven decision-making can do a lot of good in the world. Data can bring to light faulty assumptions, ripe for the changing. It can also  show us patterns we didn’t know were there. Data, according to Brooks, has the potential to revolutionize how we make decisions about the future, we just have to use it right.

If the data movement really is an emerging philosophy, i’m fascinated by the potential for new and interesting art to reflect such a potentially profound shift. When I first read this piece, the first thing that came to mind was the Bennett Miller film “Moneyball”. Moneyball is, in a sense, about a revolution. The genius of that movie comes from the genuine tension and drama that Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane experiences while diving head-first into untested waters. His willingness to throw away everything that’s ever been done before seems to come from a profound desperation. He feels cheated by a system that gambles the lives of young talent. He’s fed up with uncertainty, and turns to data for comfort.

Contrast this with another great baseball movie, The Natural. What a great film that is. Even though they both use the same game, the natural is about something very different. It’s about the magic of the game, the inspiration that comes through things like virtue and hard work. Moneyball is about realizing that those things don’t always pan out the way you hoped.

Miller’s film feels so current, which is why the idea of an emerging art reacting to the “Philosophy of Data” gets me all excited. We’ll get to see the good, the bad and the ugly of the movement. It’s a new romanticism, believing that maybe our problems really can be solved by data. Not the old, flawed data from the 80’s and 90’s. You know, The kind that Paul Simon wrote about, and that told everyone that New Coke would be a great success.

No. We’ve worked out those kinks. These statistics will change the world. Nate Silver has now shown us that we can confidently know who the president will be far before voting day. We are that much closer to touching the face of God.

Of course, this wont actually work. Nate Silver definitely has proven that voting trends and polling numbers can be used to create accurate predictions, and that will certainly continue to influence politics. Baseball is forever different because they now know how to build a cheaper, more effective team. There’s no transcendence to the philosophy of data. You don’t go to bed at night feeling better because you know we understand statistics more.If anything, there will be an added emptiness knowing that we know more, but still struggle to do more.

On the other hand, such a realization can make for some great art.


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